Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire

I’m playing around with this format to see is this might be a way to quickly and easily post short reviews of book that I have read but don’t plan on offering an in-depth review.

I saw Every Heart a Doorway at a local bookstore and added it to my TBR list. Finally borrowed it for Kindle from Libby app and read it. I figured this would be something I enjoy. “Creative spin on classic fairy tale/mythology/speculative fiction trope.”

It was interesting… but unsatisfying somehow.

As is often the case with first books in a series, it felt like a setup that didn’t quite payoff. This is a novella so it really does read like an introduction. It is also like one part speculative fiction, with a heavy dose of paint by numbers “diversity,” and one part murder mystery. I don’t think the two blended very well. My sense is the first aspect is more interesting than the second and thus was undercut by the latter; particularly in the second half of the book.

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The Passengers by John Marrs

As should be pretty clear by now, I am the height of inconsistency when it comes to reading and writing book reviews. Whether it is my fickle nature, a lack of inspiration or the business of life, I have just not been able to consistently post reviews here this year (well, the last couple of years).

The Passengers is a good example. Signed up for a blog tour, got a copy of the book from NetGalley, read it, and promptly failed to post a review when it came out on August 27 like I had said I would. So sorry for the delay.

What intrigued me about the book was both its plot and its technological and philosophical elements:

You’re riding in your self-driving car when suddenly the doors lock, the route changes and you have lost all control. Then, a mysterious voice tells you, “You are going to die.”

Just as self-driving cars become the trusted, safer norm, eight people find themselves in this terrifying situation, including a faded TV star, a pregnant young woman, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife, and a suicidal man.

From cameras hidden in their cars, their panic is broadcast to millions of people around the world. But the public will show their true colors when they are asked, “Which of these people should we save?…And who should we kill first?”

As I mentioned on Goodreads, this is another book that feels stuck between 3 and 4 stars. Enjoyed it? Yes. REALLY liked it? Eh, not exactly.

And as others have noted, this book has Hollywood action flick written all over it. It is a unique combination of philosophical/moral conundrums and action. Lots of twists and turns and a plot that keeps you guessing.

It slows down. however, when it turns to the internal emotional lives of the characters. Might have been a stronger, tighter book if there were less attempts at amateur psychology. And at times the characters are a little too stock (Corrupt politician, female character who seems weak but turns out to be strong, etc.).

Still, a pretty entertaining summer read despite the uncomfortable feeling that these issues (moral, political, technological) all lie in our future.

The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

This was an impulse library pick up and read. I read the Themis Files series by the same author and I am always tempted by novellas and short pieces of fiction these days so I checked out The Test and put it by the bed for nighttime reading. It turned out to be an enjoyable read, although it is a dark and in many ways disturbing one.

Britain, the not-too-distant future.

Idir is sitting the British Citizenship Test.

He wants his family to belong.

Twenty-five questions to determine their fate. Twenty-five chances to impress.

When the test takes an unexpected and tragic turn, Idir is handed the power of life and death.

How do you value a life when all you have is multiple choice?

Despite its disturbing nature, the strong characters, thought provoking and suspenseful plot, and unexpected ending make it a worthwhile read. A novella that packs a punch in a few words.

This is one of those books that you should read it in one sitting, put it down and let it percolate, and then read again. Would be a fascinating book club read as well, as different people likely have very different reactions given their politics, culture, taste, upbringing, worldview, etc.

It touches on immigration, assimilation, ethics and morality, family, and more all in a hundred pages. What struck me on first reading was the way extreme choices fundamentally change a person. How even if you make the “right” choice it could have negative consequences; unforeseen and unalterable ones. Tragedy tests the human psyche and soul; sometimes beyond the breaking point.

Highly recommended for fans of futuristic fiction that makes you think.

The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett

I was intrigued by The Space Between the Stars mostly because of the interesting concept/hook: virus threatens human existence so how do the few survivors react, order and civilization versus utopia and anarchy, etc. After reading it, I felt it had some promise but plenty of weaknesses.  For example, I felt like the lead character was prickly and angst ridden to the point of annoyance. On the other hand, give Corlett credit for creating a character whose personality and backstory are consistent and likely realistic. I also felt like the faith/religious element was odd, nebulous and hard to follow.

It was interesting enough that I kept reading but just didn’t quite grab me. Perhaps it is not quite my genre; a little too much romance and family drama for my tastes. Plus. lots of interesting philosophical questions bouncing around but not a lot of answers and at the expense of the plot and character development.

A few critics had very different reactions as well.

Marilyn Dahl at Shelf Awareness was full of praise:

Anne Corlett has taken the themes of apocalypse, people attempting to create Utopia but unleashing Armageddon, population engineering and breeding programs, and put her particular stamp on the familiar. The Space Between the Stars is a sci-fi story laced with homey details like e-readers and jigsaw puzzles–there are no esoteric descriptions of warp drives or biodomes or aliens. But there is adventure, there is romance, there is self-discovery. Jamie looks at a blue sky, which “felt like a lie, after so much time spent up above it, in the black of space. It was just something to hide beneath, to avoid seeing how wrenched and scattered among the stars they all really were.” But she finds, in this intriguing and wise story, what can fill the space between the stars.

Kirkus? Uh, not so much:

In the hands of someone with more literary skill, this story could have been something akin to Station Eleven in space, but it isn’t even close. The prose is insipid, with some eye-rollingly trite sentences, such as, “Home’s what’s left over when you’ve figured out all the places you don’t want to be.” Protagonist Jamie is staggeringly unlikable. For instance, she bemoans a past miscarriage, then reveals she abhorred her unborn child. Further flashbacks reveal that she’d only gotten pregnant because Daniel—the same man she’s desperately seeking—wanted a child. Worse, there’s virtually no science in this science fiction. The aforementioned virus, which inexplicably turns human bodies into dust, laughably calls to mind Daffy Duck being disintegrated by Marvin the Martian—although the science fiction of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century is arguably better than anything here. The worldbuilding is dropped into the story in steaming piles of infodump that raise more questions than they answer. And after Jamie uncovers the absurdly obvious origins of the deadly virus (which had been telegraphed from the very beginning), the entire story is tied up in a big, banal bow.

Terrible science and even worse fiction.

I didn’t love it like Shelf Awareness but I didn’t hate it quite like Kirkus.  To me it didn’t live up to its promise but get some credit for the concept.

Review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Not sure when, how or why I stumbled on The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter but at some point I put it on the wish list.  Anticipating some long car trips for work, I recently downloaded it via Overdrive and listened to it on audio book while traveling around Ohio.

Gut reaction: interesting but sort of meandering; a giant thought experiment with some intriguing characters and a good hook but that never quite gets beyond a desultory pace or energy. Despite the “bombshell” at the end, not sure I have the energy to tackle the second book.

I should perhaps offer the caveat that I don’t believe I had read any of the author’s previous works and that science fiction is not something I read a lot of or seek out.  I enjoy imaginative and speculative fiction, however, and felt like this was in that ballpark.

FWIW, Adam Roberts seems to think there is more Baxter than Pratchett:

The Long Earth reads much more like a Baxter novel than a Pratchett one. It’s not very funny, for one thing – discounting some wry dialogue and one not-very-successful stab at a comic character (a deceased Tibetan monk who has been reincarnated as a superintelligent drinks dispenser). Instead our hero, Joshua, explores stepwise for a million earths or so, the whole journey rendered with a characteristically Baxteresque mix of big-scale imagination and scientific rigour. The resulting novel is a surprisingly gentle piece of work. Something Wicked, or at least Something Worrying, is sweeping in from the further reaches of the long earth, driving frightened steppers before it like refugees; but it’s a long time before we become aware of this, and not much is made of it. Otherwise human settlement upon the alternate earths is rural and low-tech (steppers cannot carry iron with them, for unexplained reasons) and almost entirely free of crime, rapine and nastiness. Lacking the pressures of overpopulation and with infinite natural resources to draw on, people just seem to get along with one another. Indeed, I’m tempted to call The Long Earth an exercise in utopian writing; an unfashionable mode nowadays, when grim-and-gritty dystopias rule the publishing roost.

I am not big on dystopian fiction so I too enjoyed the style.  The set-up and concept (Stepping, tech driven and “natural”, across worlds, etc.) was fascinating and sucked you in.  The philosophical questions raised are interesting to think about.

But once Joshua and Lobsang embark on their adventure it fell into a lot of dialog and slow moving plot.  Even the interesting bits about natural steppers and what might be causing the “trolls” and “elves” to flee too often get caught up in slow moving discussing between characters.  At the end the tension ratcheted up and things got interesting but I guess I just expected a little more heft or depth.

The AV Club review gets at this:

The story is filled with dozens of huge philosophical, scientific, and social questions, but it ends up short on answers. It lacks a strong plot, and asks, “What does it all mean?” and “What’s going to happen to humanity?” several times over its course, then ends with a promise of sequels. That promise is welcome, but The Long Earth suffers slightly from its own overpacked potential: It promises a satisfying meal, and delivers a tasty appetizer.

It was interesting but after over 11 hours of listening I thought I would be further along or come away with more.  Instead I was left wondering whether it would be worth continuing the series.

The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

I have followed John Scalzi online in various forms for quite some time but I have never actually “read” any of his books (I am not a big reader of science fiction).  My only other interaction with his fiction is The God Engines, an audio-book and longish novella I picked up at Half Price Books.

Interestingly enough, The Dispatcher is also an audio-book (which is available for free on Audible during the month of October).  This novella, however was developed in collaboration with Audible, with Zachary Quinto as the narrator,  and was released before the print book (coming out in 2017).

One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone – 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don’t know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.

Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher – a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death’s crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge a supposed wrong.

It’s a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it’s too late…before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

Once I downloaded it, I put in the rotation right away as it iwas just a couple of hours of listening. It was an entertaining and well done novella. Scalzi/Quinto drop you into the story and keep you interested from the start. It has an interesting hook and some well done twists. For such a short story, the characters were developed and seemed quite believable in their actions and motivations.  Quinto brings this cast of characters to life.

Part urban fantasy, part police procedural, part mystery.  Definitely worth a listen.  And if you hurry you can get it for free!

Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson

Daminificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson is a novel based on “The Tower of David” in the center of Caracas, Venezuela. The half-completed tower was occupied by thousands of homeless people during the 2007 housing crisis in that city. Wilson uses the occupation as inspiration to write about a group of damnificados (vagabonds and misfits) who take over the tower and fight to keep their hold on the tower.

Wilson masterfully tells of the struggle between the poor and the powerful (Torres brothers) with a little bit of magic.  The damnificados by all rights should have been wiped out by the Torres brothers’ armies – including guns and tanks. But with a combination of ingenuity and help from some wolves and the earth opening to swallow the tanks, the damnificados are able to survive two different assaults.

As part of his tapestry, Wilson discusses the history of the “trash wars” where damnificados fought each other to death and how those wars influenced their situation in the tower. Although it is pure fiction and part fantasy, it is an easy read that you do not want to put down.

Wilson includes a cast of characters that the reader can sympathize with – including Nacho, Chinaman, two German twins, and many more. The main character in the story, Nacho, is an unlikely hero – he is extremely intelligent and well-read with serious physical disabilities. Despite those disabilities, he adroitly leads the damnificados through many trials.

The book is worth the read.

Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things
I had The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber on my wish list for quite a while.  Genre defying story with a faith/religious thread? Sign me up.  I actually grabbed a hardback for a couple of bucks at a library sale but hadn’t made time to read it. So I decided to go the audio route and listen to it on my daily commute.

I am somewhat torn as to my reaction. I really enjoyed it for about 75% but then it felt like it was dragging a bit.

But no sooner had I begun to feel that, it cranked up the tension and I stayed up late to finish it.  I finished it in hardback, however, as I didn’t have the patience to wait for my next car trip once I got close to the ending.

In the same way, I am not sure what to make of the book’s approach to faith and Christianity. Most of the book reads like a rather fair and sympathetic perspective on the life of a missionary and perhaps a commentary on modern Western culture.

But the end seems to undercut that or at least call it into question. I am not sure I have the energy to read it again, so I will have to leave my reaction ambiguous.

Instead, I will offer a few quotes from other reviews.

Jason Sheehan at NPR offers this praise:

And this is Faber’s great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years.

But then this:

Because for a book whose press goes to lengths to separate it from the genre it is allegedly defying (going so far as to never even use the phrase “science fiction” to describe it), it is 100 percent a science-fiction book — just not a terribly original one. It is a Missionary To The Aliens story, a path well-trod by Golden Age sci-fi writers (something which Faber lampshades in a couple of places by having Peter make mention of feeling like he’s living in a classic science-fiction story) and, more recently, done famously by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow or James Blish in A Case Of Conscience. And Faber brings little that’s new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters.

M John Harrison at the Guardian:

This is a big novel – partly because it has to construct and explain its unhomely setting, partly because it has such a lot of religious, linguistic, philosophical and political freight to deliver – but the reader is pulled through it at some pace by the gothic sense of anxiety that pervades and taints every element.

Ron Charles at the Washington Post:

For all its galactic wonders, “The Book of Strange New Things” is a subtle, meditative novel that winds familiar space-alien tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion.

[…]

It takes a while to realize that, despite its bizarre setting and all the elements of an interplanetary opera, this is a novel of profound spiritual intimacy. Peter knows the Bible well, and if you do, too, you’ll see that he experiences everything through the fabric of its metaphors and parables. He prays like someone who actually believes, which in literary fiction is far more exotic than a space alien with a hamburger face.

Hannah McGill in the Independent:

Crucially for the sincerity of The Book of Strange New Things, Peter and his faith are presented without mockery, and the story of his mission as an experience befalling a real, feeling man, not – say – an allegory for what damage dogma and conversion have done in the world. So prevalent in the ranks of the verbose intelligentsia is the notion of all religion as a mere cover story for greed and wrongdoing that the depiction of a religious man as a sincere do-gooder feels discreetly radical, and permits Faber to ask profound questions not about the performance or misapplication of faith, but about the true condition thereof – and how that condition can be reconciled to a collective existence plagued by undeserved misfortune.

[…]

But this novel most potently concerns itself with matters at once more quotidian and more challenging than these. It is as much about the minor failures of communication that can erode marital intimacy as it is about contacting other beings, and as much about the existential terror inherent in putative parenthood as it is about travel to far-off worlds. As the once-inseparable Peter and Beatrice, now worlds apart, struggle to comprehend one another’s day-to-day lives, Faber lets a devastating possibility shuffle to the fore: every relationship is long-distance, and every person a strange new planet. The methods whereby we try to minimise difference, meanwhile, are themselves unstable – language most palpably so.

I guess I am more on the positive (some nearly gushing) reviews spectrum than I am on the negative. But, perhaps because I am not all that knowledgeable about science fiction or speculative fiction, I can’t quite see the profound and literary masterpiece some have found.

But it was different and I very much enjoyed the journey.

My Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars (View all my reviews)